Map of area burned in the downtown Belize City Fire of 1863
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Wednesday September 19, 2018

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Map of area burned in the downtown Belize City Fire of 1863, and a little history of the fire

In Belize's history, the two types of events that have caused the most destruction have been attributed to fires and hurricanes. Some of the major fires in Old Belize Town has been in 1802,1806, 1819, 1839 and 1854. However, the granddaddy of them all was the fire of 1863.

The great fire of 1863 destroyed 75% of the downtown. It destroyed from the Wesley Church all the way to Regents Street West. It was said that the Governor was on the steps of the Court House directing the fight. It is said that there was a large three-story house in the Court House Green that was in front of the Court House which was on fire. The fire was threatening to spread to the Court House next which stored all of the town's records. They had to stop the fire at all cost. To stop the fire, it was decided to retrieve a 100 lbs barrel of gun powder from one of the ships in the harbour to blow up the three-story house in the park. To make a long story short, they threw the barrel into the burning house. Eye witnesses said that when the barrel exploded the house rose 20 feet off the ground and came down in a pile of ruble. That was the end of that.

The fire of 1863 has been the largest fire in the history of Belize City to date. The exact location of the fire was easy to locate because it practically burnt 70% of the Southside of Old Belize Town. We got a good understanding of the scope of the fire based on a hand drawn sketch made by Mr. Thomas Clark after the fire. His sketch revealed that the fire travelled all the way to Bagdad Street to the North, between Albert and Regent to the East, and around Berkley Street to the South. What we can't see on his sketch is how far west it travelled levelling everything in its path. History tells us that the fire burnt 90 acres, so taking this information and utilizing modern technology (Google Area Calculator), we are able to estimate the extent of the fire (see red area on uploaded map).

Based on the three coordinates and Google Area Calculator, the fire would have gone as far West as the Novelos Bus Terminal. The fire destroyed some 500 houses and made 2000 people homeless. It started at 2 a.m. and was not gotten under control until 10:00 a.m.

The fire occurred during the month of March and it was very dry that year and a strong wind was blowing from the northeast. The fire may have started in the Albert Street area and spread West driven relentlessly by the strong dry winds. At one point during the fire, the fire had reached the street in front of the Court House. Apparently, there was a three storey house there at that time. The Court House was next on the list for the raging fire and the only way to stop the encroaching fire was to blow up the burning building in front of the Court House. A decision was made by Lieutenant Governor Seymour to blow up the building. A 100 lbs barrel of gun powder was retrieved from the HMS Jason and thrown into the burning building. On-lookers described that when the barrel exploded the three-storey house raised some 20 feet off the ground and fell in a heap of burning ruins and the Court House was saved. Other detonations were made throughout the town and so the fire was kept from expanding to Regent Street where the all the rich merchants and the public officers lived.

Only two people perished in this fire. After the fire, the whole system of streets were redrawn and made wider. A large square in the Over-pond (possibly around East Canal area) was designated as a place of safety and a clear road on either side of the canal was created

During the great fire of 1863 the settlers survived by going “over pond”. I suspect the “pond” they were referring to was the canal that was west of the South Side portion of the town. That fire destroyed 75% of the town it extended from the current Wesley Church all the way to Regent Street West and burnt everything in between.

Bernadette Burns: Yes that fire destroyed many three story beautiful colonial homes,. My parents always talked about this fire. They say it was in the quiet of a Sunday evening. The bridge was swinging manually, the city had only one fire engine. When the fire started it was by the Palace Theater. The reflection of the sun started the fire on the film's in the store room. All the homes were wooden, the fire just tore through the area like a tornado. The fire engine was unable to get over the bridge. Many homes were burning at once because their windows were sash windows with long curtains. The sparks found their way to the curtains. This is a fact, because we lost our beautiful three stories family home in this fire. Beautiful gardens, well kept homes. They say the wind from the sea was very strong and this contributed to the spreading of the fire. Albert Street lost its beauty, these people never recovered. It became a law after that fire to bring a fire engine on the opposite side of the bridge when the bridge swings.

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